Innovative researchers join Oklahoma cancer team at OMRF and OU

When David Jones, Ph.D., joined OMRF last summer to lead its cancer research efforts, his aim was to expand the program by recruiting successful scientists from other institutions to Oklahoma City. With the addition of Alana Welm, Ph.D., and Bryan Welm, Ph.D., OMRF has taken a big first step toward achieving this goal.

The Welms are a husband-and-wife research team whose work centers on breast cancer and are expanding into colon and ovarian cancers. In addition to their roles as researchers at OMRF, the Welms will also be members of the Stephenson Cancer Center research team at the University of Oklahoma.

They come to Oklahoma from the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute, and each will bring grant support from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense. In addition to the Welms, more than a dozen staff members also made the move from Utah to Oklahoma to staff their newly opened labs.

“Oklahoma has so much to offer with cutting-edge research at OMRF and OU and clinical trials at Stephenson,” said Bryan Welm, whose research focuses on identifying natural compounds to fight tumor cells.

Alana Welm said she’s particularly excited to work with immunologists at OMRF and OU to study how the immune system fights the process of metastasis. “By understanding how cancer cells migrate throughout the body and form new tumors, we hope to learn how to deactivate that function in patients,” said Welm, who will hold the newly established Scott Zarrow Chair in Biomedical Research at OMRF.

Both scientists are keenly interested in “precision medicine,” which uses genetic information to tailor treatments for individual cancer patients. Specifically, the Welms have done pioneering work in the field of xenografts, which involves transplanting human tumors into laboratory models to study cancer development.

“By implanting a patient’s tumor in a model, we can help predict if it will be a recurring cancer and, if so, what combination of therapies will be the safest and most effective for the patient,” Alana Welm said. “Right now, about 30 percent of breast cancers become fatal. We want to improve those odds.”

The Welms met as graduate students at Baylor College of Medicine, where both earned a Ph.D., and continued their training as post-doctoral fellows at the University of California, San Francisco. The Welms then joined the faculty of the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah in 2007, where they published a series of influential studies on breast cancer pathology, metastasis and development over the next seven years.

Their arrival in Oklahoma reunites the Welms with former Huntsman researcher Jones, who chairs the Immunobiology and Cancer Research Program at OMRF and also serves as Deputy Director for Translational Research at the Stephenson Center.

“Alana and Bryan Welm are bringing an exciting portfolio of research and expertise to Oklahoma,” said Jones, who also holds the Jeannine Tuttle Rainbolt Endowed Chair in Cancer Research at OMRF. “Their work is going to be a major asset to both OMRF and the Stephenson Cancer Center as we find new ways to deliver better outcomes to cancer patients in Oklahoma.”